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Goran Dragic takes the reins in Slovenia, now needs to bring them back to Phoenix Suns

Every year of his professional career, Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic grows into a larger role, both in the NBA and in his native Slovenia. But at 27 years old and a decade into a heavy year-round basketball schedule, Dragic may have reached his zenith.

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Goran Dragic was drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Suns in 2008 at the tender age of 22 when he was merely a backup point guard for TAU Ceramica (now Caja Laboral). His first two NBA seasons were spent as a backup to former two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash in Phoenix while he concurrently backed up former Euroleague MVP Jaka Lakovic on his Slovenian National Team.

Once dubbed the worst player in the NBA and given the nickname "Goran Tragic" by ESPN columnist John Hollinger (now somehow the Director of Player Personnel for Memphis), Dragic has ascended the NBA and Euro ladders at a rocket-fueled pace in the last three years.

2010 - Stepping from the shadow

By spring of 2010, his second year in the NBA, Dragic became a serious NBA threat. While he still backed up Steve Nash in Phoenix, logging only 18 minutes a game, Dragic scored 32 in a loss to Utah and then famously blasted San Antonio in the second round of the 2010 playoffs. Suns fans remember Dragic's transformation that year. We remember that opponents began to fear the Suns bench almost as much as the star-studded starting lineup.

At the time, I worried that Dragic had already reached his ceiling. I wrote an article for Bright Side, warning fans not to fall for the national hype over Dragic and wait until he had another season to prove himself.

That fall, Dragic joined Lakovic to lead the Slovenian team to 8th place in the 2010 FIBA World Championships - the highest Slovenia had ever finished on the World Stage. Dragic still shared time with Lakovic at the point, but he otherwise played shooting guard and had become the face of Slovenian basketball, posting 12.7 points, 4.1 assists and 3.3 rebounds for the overachieving squad.

But when he returned to Phoenix, he played (relatively) terribly for the Suns and their new general manager, Lance Blanks, traded him to Houston for a purportedly better player in Aaron Brooks (AND a first round pick). I was in favor of the trade at the time, thinking that Dragic's ceiling was a good backup, rather than a solid starter, while Brooks had proven himself to a starting quality point guard (19 points, 5 assists the year before).

2011 - Fits and Starts

Upon receiving his professional "wake up call", Dragic played much better in Houston than he had in Phoenix. He was still a backup, but the coaching staff loved him from day one and when starter Kyle Lowry for injured, Dragic "killed it" over the final week of the season as starter. Back in Phoenix, Aaron Brooks rubbed everyone wrong and barely made an impact as the Suns sputtered to the finish line.

In the 2011 Eurobasket championships, Dragic led his Slovenian team in points and steals per game, while finishing second in assists to the fading Lakovic. Slovenia fell to 7th place after having taken 4th place in Eurobasket 2009 and 8th in 2010 Worlds.

2012-13 - Rise of the Phoenix

Over the past 18 months, Dragic has taken much bigger steps than most people anticipated he could ever take back in 2008. Dragic became a full-time NBA starter for Houston (final 28 games of 2012 season) and then signed a huge deal to supplant Steve Nash in Phoenix.

For the first time in his career, Dragic was a full-time starter from day one in Phoenix. He responded by proving to the world he could repeat his high efficiency on double the minutes, posting a wide range of stats that only a few NBA players could match. Only FOUR other players in the entire NBA put up more points, assists and steals than Goran Dragic's 14.7 points, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals.

Eurobasket 2013

Now in Eurobasket 2013, Dragic is carrying his undertalented Slovenian team beyond their means as the undisputed leader. Lakovic is a shadow of his former self and other long-time national team members are missing (Udrih), injured (Erazem Lorbek) or retired.

Dragic is the only NBA-caliber player on the team, yet they have ridden their home crowd to the quarterfinals and a guaranteed World Cup berth in 2014. Slovenia had missed the odd-year Olympics counterpart in 2012, so this will be their first World stage since 2010.

Dragic has posted team and (Euro) career highs of 15.5 points, 4.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds, by far the team leader. But he's only been able to play 23.9 minutes per game and lately looks gassed in the fourth quarter. The emotional toll of his home crowd (Slovenia is hosting the tournament, with 10,000 fans per night) and pressure to play 110% every minute is wearing him down.

The Zenith?

How much further can Goran Dragic go with his professional career?

At 27 years old, he still relies almost entirely on his high motor and athleticism to beat the opponent. His shooting mechanics make it difficult to be a consistent shooter, something he will need as his legs fail him in the coming years.

After close to a decade of year-round basketball, how many years can he sustain being the face of his franchise and national team? Probably several. He will be moving part-time to the shooting guard position next season next to Eric Bledsoe, which might ease the pressure on him during games in the NBA.

But the bigger question is: what is Goran Dragic's ceiling?

Can he rise any higher than he already has: a quality NBA starter and national team leader? Can he become an NBA All-Star?

To do so, he must improve his shooting percentages and become a better leader. For Slovenia, he's already there.

"I didn't realize what a tremendous leader he is, by his words and example," [assistant coach Chris] Thomas said to Paul Coro recently. "I marvel at how our guys look up to him on a daily basis. It's impressed me beyond what I can express."

But it's been different in the NBA. Goran is quiet, and not inclined to be a leader and mentor off the court. Maybe that's changing, but he needs to realize how necessary it is in Phoenix with such a young squad. Last year, Dragic got frustrated with his teammates and couldn't get them to play all-out-all-the-time like Slovenia does.

We shall see this upcoming season in Phoenix whether Dragic can take that next step.

Final note

Slovenia has one more Eurobasket 2013 game tomorrow, playing Ukraine for the 5th place spot vs. 6th. Neither team will win a medal, but both Ukraine and Slovenia have guaranteed themselves a trip to the FIBA World Cup in 2014.

New Suns player Viacheslav Kravtsov faces off against Dragic before they both return to Phoenix for training camp. Kravtsov had 6 points, 6 rebounds and 6 blocks today against Italy and leads the entire field in blocks for the tournament as a backup C for Mike Fratello's Ukraine team.

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